Sex in the Media: Links To Behavior Differ Between White and Black Teenagers

D. Hollander

First published online:

The influence of exposure to media with sexual content on teenagers' sexual activity differs for white and black youth, according to results of a longitudinal study of middle school students in North Carolina.1 In analyses controlling for demographic characteristics, reported levels of precoital sexual activity and intercourse among both whites and blacks were positively related to exposure to sexual content in media. However, when psychosocial variables were taken into account, the relationships remained significant only for white teenagers; key factors in blacks' likelihood of having intercourse were their peers' sexual norms and their parents' attitudes and involvement in their daily lives.

Study participants were 1,017 students in 14 public middle schools who completed an audio computer-assisted self-interview about media and health behaviors in 2002, when they were 12–14 years old, and a follow-up interview two years later. In the baseline interview, respondents were asked about their use of four media—television, movies, music albums and magazines. They also were asked how frequently they watched, listened to or read specific media offerings on an extensive list, all of which had been analyzed for sexual content. For each teenager, the researchers calculated a "sexual media diet" score, which summarized the degree to which the adolescent was exposed to media with sexual content and the frequency with which the youth used them. They conducted multivariate regression analyses to assess associations between sexual media diet at baseline and two sexual behavior outcomes at follow-up: participation in precoital activities and intercourse.

At baseline, the sample was evenly divided between blacks and whites, and between males and females; participants' average age was about 14 years. One-third of students were classified as being of low socioeconomic status. Responses to scaled items indicated that the teenagers generally felt connected to school and achieved good grades; religion was moderately important to them. On average, they considered their relationships with their mothers quite good, said that their parents strongly disapproved of adolescent sexual activity and reported that their parents regularly engaged in five of eight specified activities with them. Respondents generally considered their pubertal development to be in line with that of their peers, and believed that about half of their friends had had sex.

During the first interview, 21% of black participants and 4% of whites said that they had had intercourse; 8–44% of blacks and 5–44% of whites had engaged in each of five precoital activities (in increasing order of frequency, oral sex, touching genitals, touching breasts, French kissing and light kissing). At follow-up, 46% of blacks and 18% of whites reported having had intercourse; the proportions reporting the specified precoital activities ranged from roughly 25% to 75% in each group.

In an ordinary least squares regression analysis that controlled only for demographic characteristics, the higher the sexual media diet score, the more precoital behaviors black teenagers reported at follow-up. Increasing age, being male and the perception of having experienced puberty early also were positively associated with the number of precoital sexual activities among blacks. However, when baseline precoital sexual behavior and the psychosocial variables were included, exposure to sexual media was no longer significant; only low socioeconomic status, the perception of early puberty and precoital sexual experience at baseline were associated with an elevated level of precoital sexual activity.

By contrast, for whites, exposure to sexual media was positively associated with precoital sexual activity in the initial analysis, and the association remained significant when the psychosocial variables were added to the model. Baseline precoital sexual behavior also was positively associated with precoital sexual activity, and parental disapproval of teenage sex and a high degree of religiosity were negatively associated with this outcome.

Results of Cox regressions assessing the relative risk of sexual intercourse were similar. For blacks, each 20% increase in the sexual media diet score was associated with a 14% increase in a youth's risk of having intercourse in a model controlling only for demographic characteristics. However, when the other variables were included, exposure to sexual media was no longer significant; in this model, the risk of intercourse declined with parental involvement in teenagers' daily activities (relative risk ratio, 0.9) and with parental disapproval of teenage sex (0.7), and increased with the perceived proportion of peers who were sexually active (1.5).

For whites, in the initial model, each 20% increase in sexual media diet score was associated with a 50% increase in a teenager's risk of engaging in intercourse; the increase in risk was still significant, although smaller (30%), in the full model. The risk of intercourse was lower for males than for females (relative risk ratio, 0.4), and it declined as parental disapproval of sex increased (0.5) and as grades rose (0.8); the greater the perceived proportion of sexually active peers, the higher an adolescent's risk of having had intercourse (1.4).

The researchers point out that the relationship between sexual content of media and early sexual activity has not been extensively explored. Despite the limitations of their study—mainly that the sample was not nationally representative, the analyses did not account for all factors that may influence early sexual behavior and the Internet was not included as a source of exposure to sexual material—they call it "one of the first…to establish the basic connection." Noting that it took many years to establish a link between violence in the media and children's violent behavior, the researchers caution that "it may be prudent not to wait decades to conclude that the media are also important sources of sexual norms for youth."—D. Hollander


1. Brown JD et al., Sexy media matter: exposure to sexual content in music, movies, television, and magazines predicts black and white adolescents' sexual behavior, Pediatrics, 2006, 117(4):1018–1027.